Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

Parties Divided and Uniting

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas misjudged the North. Any hope he had that finishing forever debate over slavery and its future, as well as opening the floodgates for white settlement in the plains, would win the white North back for the Democracy and meet the challenge of antislavery Whiggery by removing its signature issue died hard over 1854.

Antislavery politics had spawned the tiny Liberty Party in the Burned-Over District of New York back in the early 1840s. They split off from more radical abolitionists like Garrison in reading the Constitution as an anti-slavery document. That core of a few thousand supporters went into the Free Soil party in 1848, briefly turning into a major movement. But the free soil movement largely subsided, at least on the presidential stage, after the Compromise of 1850. Antislavery found a more congenial home among the northern Whigs. William Seward’s wing of the party happily welcomed them. The party’s ailing southern wing did not, but the Democracy’s successes in the South helped limit their ability to reign in Whiggish moves against slavery. This in turn set up a vicious cycle where the party’s northern wing felt less beholden to its southern compatriots and thus could adopt policies increasingly hostile to those same men and their prospects of election in the South.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

Despite successes, the northern Whigs had their own problems. Without a functioning Southern wing, they had little hope of gaining the White House again. Their past success there, however fleeting, had also brought about results from Texas annexation to the Fugitive Slave Act that many of the same northern Whigs found obnoxious. Furthermore, the Democrats who might switch over had seen the Whigs and Whiggery as the enemy for decades. They may agree on slavery, but not necessarily the rest of the Whig program that would come with joining in. Chase appealed to the Independent Democrats, not the Whigs-in-waiting. To top it all off, Whiggery had both lost its southern wing and now faced a potent challenge from tides of immigrant voters. In the four years before 1852, more immigrants had flooded into the country than Winfield Scott’s entire popular vote. Those immigrants, the Irish prominent among them, tended Catholic and Democratic.

We can easily forget that trend, but in other circumstances it might have saved the Democracy in the North. To the extent most immigrants, especially the Irish, cared about slavery they saw it through the lens of free blacks competing with them for jobs. Slavery might protect them from such competition. While the Whigs made token efforts to sweep up the Irish vote but more often treated them as a band of drunken undesirables better kept from voting to begin with. They would just go vote democrat anyway. The Irish could very well see all of that. They could also see the Puritans, Scots, Welsh, and Ulster surnames, faces, and attitudes and know where they ought to go instead.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Thus alienated antislavery Democrats and antislavery Whigs both had problems in their parent parties. The Democrats had a party establishment dominated by proslavery men and their lackeys, bent on striking against the vital interests of the free, white North. They could, if they could overcome their other differences, go Whig. That might very well have worked out, as increasingly slavery trumped all other issues. More and more of the white North would compromise or take a loss on some other front in order to contain slavery. But the Whigs they could have joined also saw their own ship sinking. If they could not get what they wanted inside Whiggery, why not do it outside? That would at once free them from the encumbrance of party members opposed to their interests and duck what might prove a very difficult fight between antislavery and anti-immigrant Whigs for the party’s future.

The Free Soil party gave a partial blueprint for them. Though it never elected a president, it set a precedent for antislavery Whigs and Democrats to coalition. Furthermore, it still had senators that it elected in coalition with one party or the other as state politics dictated. If a new anti-Nebraska, antislavery party could not take over a state or two on its own then the Free Soil party’s route remained open to it.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Six

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Charles Suttle tried to get a few hundred extra dollars out of various Bostonians while Anthony Burns rotted in a slave jail. But eventually Burns got out. Suttle wanted done with him and Richmond had a fair on, so Anthony Burns went up at auction. The crowd knew him for a runaway and heaped abuse on Burns. For some time, the auctioneer could get no bids. Finally David McDaniel, a North Carolinian, bought him for $905. Suttle refused a sure $1,200 in Boston, demanded $1,500 later, and bemoaned his expenses. He gave up the use of Burns’ labor for four months. Suttle told Boston correspondents that, as a man of no great wealth, he had to look out for his financial interests. Apparently that entailed giving up $295 for principle.

McDaniel went up and had a talk with Burns. He knew that Burns fancied himself a preacher and would have none of that. Preachers could give slaves ideas and an illicit meeting of slaves, ostensibly for religion, usually put visions of a conspiracy to run away or cut owners’ throats into the minds of slaveholders. When you outnumber a group of people you treat very badly, paranoia naturally follows. Burns refused to submit to that, but promised that if treated well he would serve well. Otherwise, Burns told his new owner, he fully intended to leg it again.

McDaniel, surprisingly, had a sense of humor about that. His business in North Carolina involved growing cotton, but mainly he traded slaves and horses. Charles Emery Stevens reports that McDaniel freely partook of the wares of his female property, happily selling off his children. One would not expect it of such a person, but McDaniel did treat Burns relatively well. Anthony had charge of his stables, slept in an office there, and did not have to answer to any overseer but McDaniel himself. Slaves regularly went in and out of McDaniel’s plantation, but Burns’ place there seems rather stable. Maybe McDaniel took a shine to him. Burns did not feel compelled to run, even if he’d rather be free.

Leonard A. Grimes

Leonard A. Grimes

By this time, his Boston supporters had lost all contact with Burns. He tried to write them from the slave jail, but the letters never arrived. In all likelihood, they never got past the local postmaster. But for a happy accident, Burns might have still been in North Carolina when the war broke out:

At length, an accident revealed the place of his abode. He had one day driven his mistress in her carriage to the house of a neighbor, and, while sitting on the box, was pointed out to the family as the slave whose case had excited such commotion throughout the country. It chanced that a young lady residing in the family heard the statement, and by her it was repeated in a letter to her sister in Massachusetts. By the latter the story was related in a social circle where the Rev. G. S. Stockwell, one of the clergymen of the place, happened to be present. This person immediately addressed a letter to Anthony’s owner, inquiring if the slave could be purchased. An answer was promptly returned that he might be purchased for thirteen hundred dollars.

Leonard A. Grimes, a black man born free in Virginia and now a minister in Boston, took up the challenge. Grimes had worked smuggling fugitive slaves through Washington. He had even done two years hard labor in a Virginia jail for helping fugitives make their way north. There, Grimes found religion. He also found Washington less than thrilled to see him again and so decamped to Massachusetts, founding a church in Boston where Shadrach Minkins had worshiped. Forty of his flock fled to Canada after the fugitive slave law passed.

With some trouble, Grimes raised the cash and made arrangements to buy Burns in Baltimore for $1,300. Then free at last, Burns met a hero’s welcome in Massachusetts and landed at Oberlin to study theology. He toured parts of the North with an exhibit on the evils of slavery and sold copies of Charles Emery Sevens’ story of his struggles to fund more studies, but Burns’ health never recovered. After a brief stay in Indianapolis in 1860, he made his way to Canada and died there, off the radar of American antislavery men, in 1862.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Five

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

Commissioner Edward J. Loring ruled that Anthony Burns belonged to Charles Suttle and sent him back to Virginia. Burns went through rows of soldiers to a revenue cutter that spirited him back to slavery, courtesy of Franklin Pierce and at the cost of great agitation in both sections and thousands of dollars from the federal treasury. All those soldiers drew pay, after all.

The story could end there, at least until the war. Boston’s abolitionists tried to raise money to buy Burns from Suttle. At first, the Virginian seemed open to the idea. Suttle asked $1,200 and Boston’s abolitionists went to work gathering it. All of this transpired before the rescue attempt, over the weekend before the trial. After the rescue attempt and Batchelder’s death, Suttle insisted that Burns’ trial go forward before any sale. Subsequently, some major contributors to the fund pulled their money out. They wanted to prevent a fugitive slave trial in Boston out of civic pride. Freeing Burns only served as a means to that end and with a man dead already they couldn’t see a way to avoid some kind of trial. Attempts to buy Burns’ freedom during and after the trial, even to the point of doing it on board the revenue cutter, failed. Now Suttle would only sell Burns in Virginia.

Once Suttle had Burns back in Virginia, he received letters from Boston offering to make the purchase as promised. Suttle had Burns back in a slave state now. Surely he would sell? Unfortunately for Burns, Suttle also had Virginian friends bending his ear. He wrote back:

“I have had much difficulty in my own mind,” he writes, “as to the course I ought to pursue about the sale of my man, Anthony Burns, to the North. Such a sale is objected to strongly by my friends, and by the people of Virginia generally, upon the ground of its pernicious character, inviting our negroes to attempt their escape under the assurance that, if arrested and remanded, still the money would be raised to purchase their freedom. As a southern man and a slave-owner, I feel the force of this objection and clearly see the mischief that may result from disregarding it.

But, Suttle allowed, he had a soft side too. However much he feared the precedent he could set, the Virginian would part with Burns if the Bostonians agreed to cover his legal expenses too. Suttle would have taken $1200 in Boston, if they had the money. My source, Charles Emery Stevens, insists they had the money. But Suttle agreed to $1200 in Boston and for a limited time. Afterward he incurred the legal bills from the trial to the tune of $400 and Suttle wanted that money back too. But Suttle’s soft side struck again and he knocked two hundred off and called his price $1500. If Boston would deliver, Suttle would write up Burns’ freedom papers and deposit him in Washington or on a ship to New York.

Back in Boston, the original $1,200 promptly reappeared. The extra cash Suttle now demanded did not. By this point, the whole business has the air of a shakedown. Suttle’s Boston lawyers wrote telling him that he had an obligation to accept $1,200. Suttle never wrote back and the matter died there. Suttle finally sold him to a slave trader for $910. Whatever promises Bostonians made to Suttle, he no longer had burns to sell.

While Suttle and the Bostonians exchanged letters, Anthony Burns sat in Lumpkin’s Jail in Richmond. There Burns enjoyed every amenity a slave could expect:

Here he was destined to suffer, for four months, such revolting treatment as the vilest felons never undergo, and such as only revengeful slaveholders can inflict. The place of his confinement was a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose. After entering his cell, the handcuffs were not removed, but, in addition, fetters were placed upon his feet. In this manacled condition he was kept during the greater part of his confinement. The torture which he suffered, in consequence, was excruciating. The gripe of the irons impeded the circulation of his blood, made hot and rapid by the stifling atmosphere, and caused his feet to swell enormously. The flesh was worn from his wrists, and when the wounds had healed, there remained broad scars as perpetual witnesses against his owner. The fetters also prevented him from removing his clothing by day or night, and no one came to help him; the indecency resulting from such a condition is too revolting for description, or even thought. His room became more foul and noisome than the hovel of a brute; loathsome creeping things multiplied and rioted in the filth. His food consisted of a piece of coarse corn-bread and the parings of bacon or putrid meat. This fare, supplied to him once a day, he was compelled to devour without Plate, knife, or fork. Immured, as he was, in a narrow, unventilated room, beneath the heated roof of the jail, a constant supply of fresh water would have been a heavenly boon; but the only means of quenching his thirst was the nauseating contents of a pail that was replenished only once or twice a week. Living under such an accumulation of atrocities, he at length fell seriously ill. This brought about some mitigation of his treatment; his fetters were removed for a time, and he was supplied with broth, which, compared with his previous food, was luxury itself.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Four

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3)

Like Millard Fillmore before him, Franklin Pierce took fugitive slave rescues very seriously. They amounted to open conspiracy to violate federal law. More than that, the federal law they violated held the Union together. If not a part of the Constitution exactly, it had a kind of de facto para-constitutional status in their minds. The South had informed the North, in the wake of the secession conspiracy back in 1850, that the Union rested on the fugitive slave act. Even if the North hated that law, northerners must live with it. After the first wave of fugitive rescues, the North had done so. Defiant Boston abolitionists, who succeeded for Shadrach Minkins and then failed for Thomas Sims, had new friends thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska act but the large mob that gathered outside the Boston courthouse failed to free Anthony Burns.

That left Burns, despite some long-shot legal maneuvers, to wait on the verdict of his trial before Commissioner Edward G. Loring. The prosecution called up William Brent, who managed Burns for his owner in Richmond. Brent described Burns in detail to confirm his identity and testified to the arrangement they had back in Virginia. He then reported hearsay, despite the objection from Burns’ defense. Shortly after Burns’ capture he exchanged words with his owner, Charles Suttle. Both men spoke frankly about their former circumstances. On Burns’ part, that amounted to a confession that Suttle owned him. The prosecution brought out another witness to confirm the story.

The attack on the courthouse to free Burns

The attack on the courthouse to free Burns

Richard H. Dana, Jr. had a formidable challenge in defending Burns. The commissioner had it practically from Burn’s own lips that he belonged to Suttle. He had Brent’s description to match to Burns. The facts all aligned against Dana’s defense. Dana did assert that Brent and Suttle had the wrong man, calling witnesses who claimed to see Burns in Boston before the date of his escape, but spent more of his efforts attacking the law. The fugitive slave act, Dana argued, improperly gave the powers of judges to those unqualified for the bench. It therefore flew in the face of the Constitution, which reserved the judicial power of the United States to the Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress may create. More than that, it denied the accused any right to trial by jury. It required search and seizure of Burns’ person without a proper warrant or probable cause and denied him due process. Furthermore, the whole matter amounted to a personal crusade by Brent on behalf of Southern rights. His sectional zeal led him to seek the kidnapping of an innocent man.

Testimony in the Burns trial concluded on Wednesday, May 30. The same day, Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. Loring delivered his judgment on June 1, brushing aside Dana’s constitutional arguments as issues that the Massachusetts courts had heard and dismissed before. Loring thus needed rule only on whether or not William Brent and Charles Suttle had the right man. Based on Brent’s testimony, Loring ruled that they did.

The next day, Suttle took possession of Burns. The abolitionists had not gone away. The night before they held a candlelight vigil. They draped the streets in black crepe. Abolitionists from all over Massachusetts came to see Anthony Burns marched back, through a cordon of 1,500 federal troops that Franklin Pierce sent to see it done, from the courthouse to the revenue cutter that Pierce dispatched to take him back to Virginia. For that afternoon, they locked Boston down under effective martial law.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Three

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

Parts one and two.

The abolitionists, black and white, stormed the courthouse to free Anthony Burns on the night of Friday, May 26, 1854. They got inside and nine got arrested, but Burns remained in custody. They shot James Batchelder, a temporary deputy federal marshal, dead in the fray. Then as now, the murder of an officer of the law provoked strong reactions. The abolitionist press defended the pure motives of the mob while Boston’s more conservative papers demanded that the killers face the full wrath of the law.

My sources disagree on how Batchelder died, exactly. Allan Nevins has him “shot dead.” I previously took the inference that someone in the mob got him. But today I found Batchelder insisting that someone stabbed him. Charles Emery Stevens, writing about the affair in 1856, tells it this way:

On the first alarm, the specials were hastily armed with these weapons and set to defend the assaulted door. As often as the pressure from without forced it partially open, it was closed again and braced by the persons of those inside. While thus engaged, one of the Marshal’s men, a truck-man named Batchelder, suddenly drew back from the door, exclaiming that he was stabbed. He was carried into the Marshal’s office and laid upon the floor, where he almost immediately expired. It was discovered that a wound, several inches in length, had been inflicted by some sharp instrument in the lower part of his abdomen, whereby an artery had been severed, causing him to bleed to death. A conflict of opinion afterward arose respecting the source from whence the blow proceeded. Some affirmed that it was an accident caused by one of his own party. It was said that Batchelder was engaged at the moment in bracing one part of the door with his shoulders; that while he was in that half-stooping posture, another of the specials, seeing through the opening the hands of one of the assailants, aimed at them a blow with a watchman’s club, which, missing its mark, fell upon the head of Batchelder and drove him down upon the blade of his own cutlass. Another, and perhaps more probable account was, that while Batchelder stood bracing the door behind the broken panel, the wound was inflicted by an arm thrust through from the outside, not with any murderous intent, but to compel him to relax his hold.

Stevens witnessed some of the events himself and wrote much closer in time to them, so I suspect that Nevins made a mistake which, given how often other works cite him, then got repeated by others.

Regardless of how exactly Batchelder died, his death and the angry abolitionist mob prompted stronger security measures. Two companies of artillery from the Massachusetts militia, a company of the US Army, and a company of US Marines descended on Boston. Every day of Burns’ trial, his defenders and any would-be rescuers had to pass through four or five checkpoints just to get into the building. Then they faced down 120 guards packed into the courtroom itself.

But thick crowds gathered beyond the rings of security. Even if Commissioner Edward J. Loring found that Charles Suttle owned Anthony Burns, they would have to get him through the waiting mob.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Two

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

Part One.

Anthony Burns, born a Virginia slave, stole himself away to freedom in Boston in 1854. His owner found out where he had gone when Burns wrote his still enslaved family with the news. Under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that owner, Charles Suttle, went up to Boston to reclaim him. Happening the very same month as the Kansas-Nebraska Act narrowly passed the House and landed on Franklin Pierce’s desk, and in the very heart of abolitionism. The Burns case struck at the heart of the white North’s grievances with the South. Already incensed and building a popular movement against Kansas-Nebraska, it now brought back to mind the last great legislative affront to the section.

As the law provided, Burns’ owner had a federal marshal arrest him on his way home from work. The marshal did not declare to any passers-by that he had Burns as a fugitive slave, but maintained the fiction that he wanted Burns for robbery. They took other precautions too, knowing that abolitionists had a way of relieving courthouses of fugitive slave prisoners. The crowd that gathered around the courthouse found it chained shut and guarded against them.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Boston’s antislavery organizations had been through this before. They spirited away William & Ellen Craft to the United Kingdom. They took Shadrach Minkins from the courthouse. The Fugitive Slave Act provided for a commissioner to verify that the slave catchers had a right to seize the accused, or acted on behalf of those that did. Suttle had papers from a Virginia court testifying to his ownership. He had the law and the facts on his side. But Richard H. Dana, one of the founders of the Free Soil party and one of many who volunteered his services to help Shadrach Minkins back in 1851, took the case regardless. Dana, who worked with his black associate Robert Morris, convinced Loring to delay the hearing for a few days.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Dana got his delay on May 25, 1854. Boston’s abolitionists aimed to take advantage of it. They differed on how. The abolitionist movement had a strong pacifist streak, even in Boston. Should they use all the means available to them under the law to free Burns, or should they take him from the courthouse by force? The larger group preferred keeping within the law and met in Fanueil Hall on the night of May 27th. A group of thirty radicals met separately, electing Thomas Wentworth Higginson their leader. Higginson would go on to serve as a colonel in the first federally authorized black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. He had spent the previous few days distributing broadsides to rally public opposition to Burns’ arrest and stockpiling axes and other weaponry. A Higginson plant interrupted the Fanueil Hall meeting with the claim that a band of blacks intended to break Burns out that very night, and the peaceful abolitionists quickly adjourned. Two hundred of them joined the growing mob outside the courthouse, which swelled to two thousand.

Some of that mob got together a large beam to use as a battering ram and charged the courthouse doors. They burst in and a melee ensued between them and the federal marshals. The battle resulted in the death of James Batchelder, a twenty-four year old teamster serving as a temporary deputy. This technically made him the second federal marshal killed in the line of duty. Higginson received a saber cut to the chin. Ultimately the marshal and his men prevailed, driving the abolitionists out of the courthouse and arresting nine of them.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part One

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

The general furor in the North over the Fugitive Slave Act had cooled by 1854. They had lived with it for three years, four come September. It might please very few white northerners to do so, even if they loathed black people, but the sky had not fallen. After the initial round of high-profile rescues, life largely went back to normal. Compromise and Union men prevailed. Abolitionists might have gained a higher profile and more recruits from the controversy, but the Union still had more friends and the Union hung on the Compromise of 1850. That compromise, Georgia informed the North, rested on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

But if the Union hung on the Compromise, then what had the South done with Kansas-Nebraska but destroy it? With the help of the man who masterminded the compromise, no less! The North voted for Franklin Pierce and the Democracy as the Compromise party. They put through the final settlement on slavery in the territories. The North considered the matter entirely closed. Northern men no more voted for reopening the slavery issue than they voted for lawless, anarchic abolitionist mobs storming courthouses or shooting slave catchers.

The year of 1854 has a considerably more going on simultaneously than suits the convenience of writer or reader. Filibustering, the Gadsden Purchase, and Kansas-Nebraska all overlap. To make a coherent narrative the writer must take one at a time, but the people living the year experienced it all together. Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska act on May 30, 1854. By then, another story had joined the year’s busy calendar.

Anthony Burns, born in Virginia in 1834, turned twenty the day after Pierce signed the great plains over to slavery. He lived on the other side of the country as a slave, property of Charles F. Suttle. Suttle hired Burns and his other human property out. Working as a merchant, he didn’t need all the manpower he owned for his personal use. In 1852, Suttle had Burns hired out in Richmond. Burns convinced his overseer (Suttle himself lived in Alexandria.) to let him hire himself out. That let Burns keep some of the money and gave him a small measure of additional control over his life. Burns made friends with some Northern sailors who came to Richmond by way of the James River. With the friends and cash necessary, Burns slipped on a ship to Boston in February or March of 1854, as the Senate considered Kansas-Nebraska. He got a job working in a clothing store for abolitionist Lewis Hayden.

Burns came from a family of thirteen. As he essentially fell off the face of the Earth from their perspective, he wrote to let them know that he made it to the North, alive and well. That meant, of course, putting his location in writing and passing it through the mail. Burns sent the letter through Canada, hoping that would misdirect any pursuers. That proved insufficient, because custom dictated that slaves receiving letters had those letters delivered to their owners. The envelope might have fooled Suttle and his agent, William Brent, but they opened it and read the contents.

Armed with the knowledge that Burns had decamped to Boston, Suttle and Brent followed. On May 24, they had a federal marshal arrest Burns on his way home from work. Two days before, Alexander Stephens rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through the House with those crucial thirteen votes. The North raged against Stephen Douglas, his act, and southern oathbreaking. To its outrages, it could add another, soon very public, fugitive slave capture in capital of abolitionism. Events in Boston naturally drew all eyes.

Losing the Immigrant Vote

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

Martin Van Buren

In an era where raising the most money best ensures winning the most votes and election and corruption thus often merge into the same process we can easily forget just how parties worked just a few decades ago, let alone in the nineteenth century. Martin Van Buren created the first real party machine in New York for the Democracy. The machine ran on loyalty to the party and to its leaders, rewarding that loyalty with patronage. Every civil service office went up for grabs every four years and lucrative government contracts went to supporters as a matter of course. Contributing to campaigns, then and now, involved personal investment with an expected return. The president could appoint every single postmaster in the country but picking so many people for such a minor post generally took too much time and effort. Instead the president would farm the selection out to party machines at the state level. Those state level machines had their own subordinate, usually, machines at the local level in major cities or centered around powerful constituencies.

To some degree this went on before Van Buren, but he perfected the system and made it national when he and Andrew Jackson went to Washington in 1831. Before then, changes in power usually meant little turnover. Jackson dismissed nearly ten percent of the federal government’s employees. The raucous celebration that accompanied his swearing in, where an unruly and drunken mob stormed the White House party and the president had to leave through a window, neglects that many of those men came looking for offices. They made investments in the Democracy, after all. Time for the Democracy to pay up.

One can’t help but be struck by the corruption inherent in all of this. The United States did not stand out from other governments of the time. You could literally buy offices in the British civil service, and commissions in the Royal Navy and British Army, in the same era. But with all the corruption going in one can miss what rarely came out: ideology. You bought into the Democracy for your own interests and advancement, not out of abstract idealism. Joining did not mean you favored particular policies. It meant that you voted the right way, sometimes early and often. It definitely meant you did that if you won elected office, unless you had a very good excuse, many friends, or a powerful patron to support and defend you. If you ran a newspaper, buying into the Democracy meant that you hewed to its editorial line and produced its propaganda. The notion that a newspaper man should aspire to objectivity and fairness hails from a later era indeed, after most places had turned into one paper towns.

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson's spoils system

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson’s spoils system

The lack of an official ideology, beyond “vote our way”, made the Democracy into a cosmopolitan party very adept at handling internal disagreement, which thus weathered the division over slavery better than the Whigs had, until now. That cosmopolitan approach gave the Democracy a great advantage in the North: new immigrants.

Fresh off the boat, these Americans on the make had no jobs. They often had no friends and nobody local they could prevail on to help them get started. They naturally inclined toward others who came from the same places in Europe and shared a language, religion, and common culture to help them out. The Democracy patronized the natural associations that resulted, helping immigrants find jobs, housing, and helped them on their way to citizenship and voting. When they voted, the immigrants in turn had every reason to favor the Democracy.

Those immigrants did not come from slave societies. Many saw free blacks in the North as competition that helped keep labor prices down and thus keep them poor. Opening the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, essentially all of the nation left for those immigrants or their children to occupy, meant to them flooding it with black competitors. There the story of the northern cities would surely replay itself. Enraged by the prospect of losing their American dreams, the German migration that began after the revolutions of 1848 failed began to break away from the Democracy. Thousands flocked to anti-Nebraska meetings. The German language newspapers could only manage cool indifference to the act at their most generous. One of the nation’s most numerous and growing immigrant groups, a key to the Democracy’s future in a more diverse United States, prepared to desert.

The Senate’s Democrats knew all of that. They knew that Germans did not much like slavery or black people anywhere near them or where they aimed to go in the future. If popular sovereignty played out, Germans would vote against slavery. So would the British immigrants. In response they floated an amendment to exclude non-citizens from the territories. These new and future Democrats, who the party so courted and who had in turn faithfully supported it, found themselves rewarded as well as the old Northern Democrats: with a direct repudiation of the social contract that the party relied upon.